Diet Detectives: Spotting Sensible Diets
One week you are focusing on protein. The next week, a new diet urges you to dump the protein and load up with carbohydrates. Talk about redefining yo-yo dieting.
You may be wondering whether you should continue with your current diet. Or will friends who have lost dozens of pounds on this new diet convince you to switch? All you know is that you are desperate to lose weight. If that new diet works, then you think is worth a try.
Before you dig into another diet, step back and evaluate it. Just as you would not buy a car without knowing anything about it, you should not jump into a diet without scrutinizing its claims. And before you continue your string of yo-yo dieting, you should learn what successful weight loss is all about.
The Keys to Successful Weight Loss
Weight loss does not happen overnight. Nor should it happen to the tune of 10 pounds a week. Instead, successful weight loss means losing 1-2 pounds per week. If you lose more than that, you may be harming yourself by not providing your body with all of the nutrients it needs.
It is helpful to think of weight loss as a way to also achieve good health. Losing 5%-10% of your weight may lead to improved health if you are overweight. If you choose to lose weight, no matter how much, it is a good idea to work with your doctor and/or a registered nutritionist.
There are 3,500 calories in a pound, so to lose 1 pound a week you need a 500 calorie deficit per day, which is ideally achieved both by cutting back on calories and through exercise. Regular exercise is an important component of weight loss success.
You may also need to change some of your eating patterns. For example, you may eat in front of the television without realizing how much you have eaten. Or, you may eat when you are depressed, sad, or angry. Ideally, you should pinpoint what triggers you to eat. If it is not hunger, then develop new, more healthful responses to these triggers.
Why Diets Fail
Inevitably, diets can—and most likely will—fail. Consider, after all, how many times you have been in this situation. You commit to one diet only to fizzle out after a few weeks. Then slowly but surely, the weight you have lost creeps back onto your body. It can be hard to know what went wrong.
One reason as to why diets often do not work is that they are temporary interventions and do not address the issues really at hand: what is causing a person to eat a certain way and why. Most diets, for instance, prescribe certain eating habits that you follow for a specific period. Yet once that period ends, you are left to battle with your old eating patterns. Although you may have lost weight, you did not learn enough about nutrition, nor were you taught how to modify your old eating habits to maintain the weight you achieved.
Some diets may also be too restrictive or unrealistic. Or the diet may require giving up going out to eat with friends or even eating certain food groups.
How to Spot a Healthy Diet
So how can you choose a diet that will help you lose weight sensibly and keep it off? You do this by taking the time to evaluate diets and not believing every claim you read or hear. Before you start a diet, talk with your doctor or a nutritionist about your intentions. Then ask these questions when analyzing a diet:
- Who is the author of the diet?
Make sure that the author has credentials to back his or her expertise. Even if a diet book is written by a doctor, find out that doctor's area of interest and look for motivating factors that might have prompted the book to be written.
- Are the diet's claims backed by research?
Do some digging to find out whether research has been performed, preferably at the university or hospital level.
- What are the health risks associated with this diet?
Make sure a diet lists the health risks involved—even the most sensible diets can be risky for certain groups of people, such as women who are pregnant or people with diabetes. If a diet seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Are all food groups represented in the diet?
Without the right balance of nutrients, you will feel sluggish and will perform poorly throughout the day.
Keep in mind that the key to losing weight is to cut back on calories, not to focus on particular nutrients. Don't let weight loss diets interfer with good nutrition.
- Does the diet severely restrict calories?
Severe caloric restriction should send up a red flag. Women aged 19-50 who are physically active, may require 2,200-2,400 daily calories. Active men aged 19-50 require at least 2,800-3,000 calories every day.
You are trying to reduce your calories by 500 per day.
- Does the diet recommend something other than a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat?
If so, consider finding another diet.
- Does the diet claim that weight loss will be immediate?
Remember that slow and steady sheds the weight and is more likely to keep it off. Talk with your doctor or nutritionist to find out the ideal amount of weight loss you should achieve weekly.
- Does the diet reveal how many pounds the average person loses?
Before and after photographs can be enticing but deceiving. The weight loss industry is largely unregulated and thus appealing photographs do not represent average weight loss.
- Does the diet encourage exercise?
Exercise is a vital part of weight loss and management and should at least be recommended.
- Does the diet propose a maintenance plan once you have lost weight?
Losing weight is easy for many people, but developing a plan to keep the weight off is the key to long-term success. This is why extreme or radical diets generally do not work—they are too hard to stick to in the long run.
A Life Change, Not a Quick Fix
There is no quick fix and no magic pill or supplement that will make you lose weight. To lose weight, you will need to eat less and exercise. You also need to continue eating nutritiously.
Estimated calorie needs per day by age, gender, and physical activity level. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion website. Available at: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/usda_food_patterns/EstimatedCalorieNeedsPerDayTable.pdf. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Guide to behavior change: your weight is important. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/behavior.htm. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Losing weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight. Updated May 15, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Weight loss and nutrition myths. Weight-control Information Network website. Available at: http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/myths.htm. Updated October 2014. Accessed May 4, 2017.
4/14/2009 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T316887/Diets-for-weight-loss: Sacks FM, Bray GA, Carey VJ, et al. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. N Engl J Med. 2009;360:859-873.
Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 7/1/2015